Ash Wednesday on Chicago’s Booming DIY Rap Scene

Ash Wednesday is one of the most fearless rappers within Chicago’s expansive rap scene. Hailing from Ankeny, Iowa, Ash immersed herself into Chicago hip-hop by attending weekly open mics and accepting a cold invitation onstage at a C-Rayz Walz show. Ash’s first time rapping onstage came when the Bronx rapper asked her to freestyle with him after he saw her rapping to herself in the crowd. She has been relentlessly rocking stages ever since with her unique swagger and wordplay.

Ash and her band have released a pair of projects and have steadily played shows at venues such as Cole’s, Tonic Room, Township and the Shit Hole. Ash describes her approach to music as “aggressively DIY,” in which she not only handles recording and promoting her music but also booking and curating her own shows. The up-and-coming rapper spoke with ALARM about her latest project Turn the World to Ash, Chicago’s booming music scene, and her growth as a rapper and artist.

Ash Wednesday filming her music video in downtown Chicago. Photo courtesy of Ash Wednesday.

ALARM: I really like the intro to Turn the World to Ash with Shadow Master MC.

Ash Wednesday: Yeah, Shadow gave me my name. He gave me Ash Wednesday, that’s why I have this rap name.

Is the whole story he tells on your intro true?

Ash: It’s a good story. It’s not the true story, but it’s a good story for the record. Shadow is a gem of the scene.

In the story, he talks about how he gave you your name during an open mic night. How often did you go to the open mic nights at SubT?

Ash: I would try to make myself go like every week or every other week. And sometimes I didn’t feel like going because you don’t want to do bad, but it’s like, alright I’m about to go, go do this. [I’d] go in the winter.

Yeah, (Shadow Master) was like I gave them the freestyle blessing, that’s why it’s Ash Wednesday. The open mic is on Tuesday, but it begins at midnight. So really it’s Wednesday when it starts. Yeah, we were just chopping up the shit one day, and he was like that shit was good. I’m gonna call you Ash Wednesday.

Ash Wednesday rapping and beat boxing in a cypher. Photo courtesy of Ash Wednesday.

What were some of your most memorable performances at the open mic night – good or bad?

Ash: You know, I never had a bad one. They never counted me down. Cause they count you down if they don’t like your shit. That shit is so funny. They’re also so sweet though, such a sweet community. My favorite times to perform is when Shadow or Anyi Ahlation would call you out and be like, “hey where you from?” Like, they would ask you questions, and you would respond to them in a freestyle.

You’re a charismatic and lively performer, do you think cutting your teeth at open mic shows helped you become a better performer?

Ash: I definitely think SubT made me hold my own on any stage, against anyone. There are 25 guys on that stage that all want the mic. Like, what makes you think you deserve to talk? You just have to be like, I’m in the spot, fuck you. That’s a good thought on the rap game. Like, you get your spot, you have your spot. When you get the mic, you get the mic. And if you got it, you got it, so fuck you [laughs].

It’s like a very rough and tumble atmosphere. You can like rap inside – rapping inside isn’t even cool. You have to rap outside in the ciphers on the sidewalk. And that’s like the real – if you can do that, I feel like you can be respected by any type of rapper. If you can meet them on a sidewalk and have a little back-and-forth… It showed me like what it was in the boom bap – it’s essential around here, it’s a little bit older dudes. It’s not this YCA (Young Chicago Authors), poetry kind of shit. It was like a little bit more gritty option. It was essential learning for me. I get the poetry shit. I’m from Iowa, we got poetry. But we don’t got nothing like SubT. It was great though.

You recently had a couple of shows in Iowa celebrating your album release. How did those go?

Ash: That was fun. I got to go on the radio in Des Moines. In Des Moines you can just show up to the radio and be like, hey put me on the radio. So yeah we threw a show at the Vaudeville Mews in Des Moines for the record release and made sure my parents came… I wanted to throw something that they could go and see what it is.

What made you want to do the record release show there instead of Chicago?

Ash: I love throwing shows in Chicago, it’s great. I hadn’t done one in Des Moines, and I wanted to see what the market was like. People talk a lot of shit about playing in Des Moines, I wanted to see if it was true [laughs]. It’s not as many people out there. People don’t really do stuff, the way people do stuff here. I think also like, it’s a lot of young people in Chicago that don’t have jobs, or like they’re in school, and they’re making up a big component of the social scene… It’s not a lot of kids [in Des Moines], like under 24-year-olds are out here in these shows, are everywhere. In Des Moines, the scene doesn’t really exist. There’s a little bit of a scene here and there, but it’s nothing compared to Chicago.

You got any Chicago shows coming up?

Ash: I’m working on a show for another artist, in December…  It’s officially happening December 22. I don’t have anything planned for myself. I probably should throw another show for myself. I want to get booked on somebody else’s show. Throwing all these shows is hard work.

Since when I really started, I didn’t really have friends in the scene who were throwing shows. Like I would throw my own shit and like book people on it. Just to like get on stage. Aggressively DIY. Like culminating with that backyard party, which was like all day. I can throw a show in my sleep at this point. That shit was basically like I can throw five shows in a row, let’s fucking go.

On the Chicago scene, it’s a great time to be here. It’s lovely to see all my friends getting all the success they have. It’s really cool to like open up a Hype Machine, and it’s like Chicago artists. It’s not always like that. It’s going to be an interesting next five, 10, 15, 20 years.

For as exciting and talent-filled the scene is right now. Do you think it’s harder or easier for an artist like you to come up?

Ash: I think it’s easier, honestly. There are so many eyes on Chicago. There’s an unquenchable appetite for creative content. People can consume your content so quickly. Like, you spent two years creating a record that people listen to one time – hopefully they replay it. But it’s like a bottomless pit. So when the scene is so talent-filled and people are like voraciously consuming the content, they’re always looking for the next thing. There are more opportunities for you to do a thing that people are going to see when all your people around you are of interest. So, way to go, Chicago.

On Turn the World to Ash, you work with Professor Fox. Did he produce the whole tape?

Ash: He was our hands. He was like the hands-on DAW and proprietary technologist. But my band made most of the beats. They’re not playing (on the record), but they are like conceptualizing the sounds. And they’re like working in the DAW a little bit themselves, but not with such dexterity as Zak (Professor Fox). My band can like describe the sound, like the pattern, and he would like make it. Or they would say, “we want this sound,” he would be like, “alright, we can do that with this and this.”

They went to all the sessions. They didn’t play on it though, cause no one wants to hear a live band rap record. Nobody, I don’t think [laughs]. I could be wrong. Bands are coming back, but I didn’t want to reproduce the same sound as that original record (Ugly on Purpose). It was very instrumental. So like the instrumentalists are still involved, but I got them doing digital stuff now.

It took a couple of years to put out this new project, what was it like as an artist to not releasing new music? Did it frustrate you taking that long?

Ash: I don’t mind. We were playing shows the whole time. I’d love to put more things out, but I feel like I just need to get the process worked out. I could put out more stuff than I do, I’m just sensitive about – I don’t know if I want to put out a bunch of singles. I kind of like the idea of making a cohesive project that’s five or six things for folks. But I feel like I could go work with a bunch of different producers, put out one thing here, one thing there. I just ultimately don’t know if that’s going to serve me well. It can be a lot of runaround and a lot of expense. If everyone wants to get paid, and I work with five different producers for five records. And you spend a lot of time explaining yourself, and I don’t know. I think now that this record is out, I have a lot more options than I would’ve. When Ugly on Purpose came out, that shit didn’t really sound that great [laughs].

Other than the band taking on a different role, how would you say Turn the World to Ash is different from your previous record, Ugly on Purpose?

Ash: The beats are way hotter on this one. Some of this shit honestly smacks – I don’t even say that shit. Some of those are knocking. And it was definitely thanks to Zak. He has all the tools. If you say like, “I want it to smack,” like he’ll make it smack no problem. I’d say the lyrical content is pretty similar, though. I’m moving away from myself, though, somehow. I have very self-centered lyrics, always about me. It’s like very similar to those two records, so I’m trying to see what can we do with that concept to make it more interesting to others. You think people would be interested in you, but they’re more interested in themselves [laughs].

You have a video from “Don’t Go Through My Phone” coming out soon, can you break down the story or the concept of what the video is going to be like?

Peter Medlock, who introduced me to Professor Fox, is shooting and he’s like the director. We’ve been talking about making a video forever, so this is going to be that. The concept of the video – the song is called “Don’t Go Through My Phone,” so it’s like instructing people not to go through my shit. They might not like what they find. And ShowYouSuck is the featured artist, so we were thinking like, “what can we do to pop a little bit?”

So we got ShowYouSuck in a flip phone, cell phone costume, as my lost phone, like running around downtown looking for me here and there. Meanwhile, I’m looking for my phone that I think I lost at this dude’s house, like destroying his house trying to find that shit. And then eventually me and Show meet up at this lady’s house that we shot at and hug. And we’re like so happy that we found each other.

What was it like working with ShowYouSuck and MFnMelo, who is also featured on your album?

Ash: ShowYouSuck is a gentleman, I have to say. He was super down to get on and work once he heard the concept of the song. He was like “oh, shitting on dudes, like I love that concept.” And I was like “yeah, my baby, let’s go do that shit.” His enthusiasm was close to my heart.

Melo is my longtime guy. We’ve been talking about doing a song forever. And finally I had something that was like perfect for him to slot him. “Do it for me, do it for me.” Yes, we’re going to make a video and Melo’s going to be doing it for me on that shit. I’d say working with Melo in the studio was just like, very earnest. Calm demeanor dude, just in there, wanna like get the bars and make it hot… I think he forgot to write the last four bars of his verse, and he’s like “oh my god, I’m a piece of shit. I forgot to write the last four bars of the verse.” So he’s like, finish that real quick, and went in and did it all for me. Yeah, it was great because the last four bars fit perfectly I feel like… Melo takes good care of me.